Grief & Healing From Violent or Mass Death and How To Help- Beyond Ground Zero
A Community Deathcare Perspective
This piece is intended for those who are one or more steps away from “ground zero” who have an interest in what to “do.” In my line of work, this is called community deathcare.
When the news of a violent death or deaths drops us to our knees we’re often shocked into a state of trauma to varying degrees. Many factors begin to weave the web that will shroud our understanding (or lack thereof) of what happened. Depending on our relationship with the individual or individuals who have died, the manner of death/s, our proximity to the event/s, whether or not it was intentional, accidental, or an act of nature, and how we heard the news, (if we did not experience it first hand) these aspects will each play a role.
Compounding this will be our own personal past experiences and fears and the stories we regularly tell ourselves that define “how we handle things.” Any exaggerations or imaginary furtherings (going down the rabbit hole, glazing over or turning away all together) can further torment us sometimes creating existential crises and spiritual emergencies. Holding all of this is time — which often feels like it drags out or vanishes which continues to agitate the confusion, chaos, ungroundedness and inability to “get some space” or get any kind of perspective. A flip side is that it feels like there is too much space because we feel helpless and unable to accomplish ordinary tasks or stay focused. This kind of “no space in time” can be a blessed event around a planned or expected death and extremely unsettling during tragic deaths.
Each individual may go through the same confusion in their own way in their own time for their own reasons. When it comes to interacting with each other, communication can be smoky, confusing, irritating. People will feel helpless, hopeless or try to frantically do something. This can express itself in the form of accusation or righteousness and can play out in person or online. Ground zero may have been where and when the violent act or acts played out, but the reverberations billow far beyond.
In this scenario we have recognized that ground zero is being taken care of. In some cases ground zero may be the family and direct loved ones of the individual who has died. Or it could also be the school or town that has been affected. For this practice, ground zero is stable — traumatized, in writhing pain perhaps, but you are on the “sidelines” wanting to help.
Because of the internet, someone 300 or 3,000 miles away could feel as if they are on the sidelines and able to help. This may be, and there are circumstances where you can be of great benefit from there, but I’m positive there are people in your own community who desperately need your help and love as well. There are beautiful aspects of a global community, but in this big picture, the small community often suffers. We feel like we want to tend to the ones who need us the most but sometimes forget they may be living in our own house, they may be our neighbor or there may be people who could use our help in a small private online forum we are a part of.
First, care for yourself. Everything that was described in paragraphs two and three could be affecting you. You can’t be of help to those around you without first checking in with and caring for yourself. In this scenario, no one is rapidly losing blood where you would need to act fast, instead, you have time to do an internal “check in.” In this scenario you have a minute. You might have an hour or a day to notice where in your body the emotions and sensations are showing up and paining you. Your personal check in is crucial. Make note of your process and your thoughts. Make note of how you calm yourself. Is it by rhythmical breathing? Massaging your muscles? Laying on the earth? Listening to or saying a mantra or prayer? Holding your pet? Of course these are helpful things to know about yourself and practice in advance of a devastation, that way, you have a place to start when a tragedy does occur. Don’t feel disappointed if the time never feels right for you to move beyond your own emotions and assist others. If this is the case, seek a friend or companion or professional help. Caring for yourself is caring for your community.
Determine who in your immediate circle of friends and family could use your support. After you feel stable enough to look beyond your own emotions bring your attention to those in your direct company. It’s easy to forget that our own child may need extra love when you see the need to help children who are in acute turmoil. Modeling care and empathy and companionship in your own home builds children that are able to offer themselves the same care that they then will be able to share with others. It may be your neighbor who is a retired school teacher that could use your company or your friend that is really struggling with the news.
Extend in to your neighborhood or community. Your extended circle and community may be your apartment building, neighborhood or town. It may be that your community could benefit from a shrine dedicated to those who have died. So that everybody feels included in this, the shrine could be dedicated not just to those who are center attention at the moment, but also those in your town that have died recently or tragically. It might be that because of the recent devastation someone is missing their wife who was their “person” in times of pain — even though she may have died years prior. Remember that tragedies reignite previous sorrows and painful memories. A shrine or communal art project can be big enough to hold all of the grief and does not have to be just for one specific kind.
Another example for community care can be a phone chain. Yes, an old-fashioned phone call to say hello to those whom you don’t speak to very often. Encourage them to do the same or to call back if they wish. Texts are great as well, but some older folks still prefer the phone. When texting teens or kids, emojis are great- but words are better. Start with talking about you.. something like, “I’m feeling pretty shaken up. How about you?”
Share a post on social media that expresses your sadness — don’t attach it to an article with the latest news — most likely people have seen. Putting heart into your words will go much further than just a repost. Perhaps the greatest failure and detriment of our society is our inability to grieve. We are expected to “move on” and “cheer up” far sooner than would make a deeply healthy community. By sharing your vulnerabilities it can invite others to do the same. Though, if no one else shares their feelings in return, don’t take it to heart. Grieving and expressing sorrow is a learned practice — and it has been extracted from our society for generations.
Beyond your own community. Past your neighborhood is another neighborhood and beyond that is your county and your state. There is no need to jump beyond that which you travel through most often. People are in pain everywhere and you are needed. If it is service you are seeking, you will find it. There is always something to do when there seems like there is nothing to do. Even if it is just tending to yourself, washing the dishes, changing a diaper- grief is slow. Mourning while living can be a beautiful life if you remain tender and awake. And, because we are a part of the global news and so many tragedies, the healthiest way forward is to grieve deeply and openly. Practice crying in public. Practice crying at work- let it go as if your milk has just let down. (Mamas, you know what I’m talking about.) Practice accepting the tissue from the person that offers it to you. In time, you’ll be able to be so generous with others.
It’s not about you, unless it is about you. It may be that your efforts are not recognized. If your feelings get hurt because your efforts are not rewarded in some way, do a check in to determine if you need more self-tending to time. It may be you that needs the loving care that you so desperately wish to offer. It’s okay to take turns giving and receiving. Your community will give you feedback. Tend to your self and remain humble.
Know that it might be that this entire generation does not learn how to grieve. Your work is not wasted. Building healthy communities is work that lasts our entire lifetime and continues endlessly. Therefore, you can relax and understand that you don’t need to make monumental waves to show kindness and strength in vulnerability.
A key element to working in community deathcare in the wake of a tragic event is to not polarize the situation worsening the pain and confusion. Invite grief in all of its manifestations but try to refrain from creating “sides” and instead listen and feel the emotions themselves. There is another time and place or another group to join who are active in bringing change. Both are important. Of course, if they collide, let it go. Too tight of control can bring about more grief.
Who is entitled to grieve and who is entitled to talk about grief? In an age of professionals and certifications and licenses, many people feel as though they are not trained to walk or talk or practice in certain arenas. In some cases, this is true. Though, I am a firm believer that your community will give you feedback. This may be your physical community or it may be an online community or rating system such as yelp or yahoo. Remember, just because someone has a license does not mean they are good at what they do.
In terms of communal grief, there can never be enough mental health counselors, chaplains or grief specialists to “handle” the degree of broken heartedness and devastation that is currently plaguing our country and world. If your shrine is inappropriate you will receive feedback from your community. If your words of encouragement are painful, you’ll receive that feedback. It simply makes room for someone else to do it better or for you to try it differently next time. Humble yourself and remember the objective: healing.